We were recently invited to speak at a conference organised by the Suffolk Police to talk about their ‘Reducing the Strength’ scheme which has run in Ipswich over the past two years and is targeted at the problem of street drinking. The most controversial and well-known element of the scheme is the voluntary agreement for retailers to not sell cheap high strength lager and cider.
Our view is that the Ipswich scheme is a success. The measure of that success is not the total number of retailers that have taken products off their shelves (a significant number have not done so even now two years in to the scheme) but because anti-social behaviour has reduced and a good number (about half) of the identified street drinkers are now off the streets and in treatment.
These improvements achieved in Ipswich are a result of the quality of the partnership that has been established between police, retailers, the council and crucially the health and social services. These partners identified a serious local issue and they have tackled it thoughtfully and built an effective and lasting partnership.
That said we don't think the Ipswich scheme has answered all the questions. There remains significant uncertainty about what the law allows retailers and councils to agree in this area. They have landed on a definition of the products they think are a problem that works for them, but we’re not sure how transferable their approach is to other places and crucially they have not been able to completely address legitimate retailer concerns about their competitors that still do not take part in the scheme and therefore have a commercial advantage.
Also while the Ipswich 'Reducing the Strength’ scheme has been pretty good in terms of approaching the scheme in the right way, the dozens of imitators that are emerging every week around the country are simply pushing voluntary ‘bans’ on retailer without any evidence, objectives or supporting local action. At the latest count there were at least 90 Ipswich style schemes either under way or under consideration. Our message to the conference was that we all need to agree what makes a good street drinker scheme and what is a bad scheme. Once we know this we can encourage retailers to support the good schemes and reject the bad ones.